Arthur Blythe ‘Elaborations / Light Blue: Plays Thelonious Monk / Put Sunshine In It’ 2CD (BGO) 4/5

This is the second of the pairing of various Columbia album recordings by the sadly departed alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe in the early-Mid-1980s and once again the unusual instrumental line-ups makes for some highly original and, at times, unorthodox music. The only caveat is that the most commercial of all Blythe’s recordings for a mainstream label, ‘Put sunshine in it’ has been preferred to other far superior albums, and certainly the ever popular, ‘Basic Blythe’, from 1987, would have made a far better choice, especially since it is one of Blythe’s more accessible works and includes the perennial favourite number, ‘Autumn in New York’, with no less than two versions on the same album.

That aside, this latest re-issue has the major bonus of Blythe re-interpreting the music of Monk on the strongest of any of the albums showcased here, the excellent 1985 recording ‘Light Blue: Arthur Blythe plays Thelonius Monk’. This compares favourably with two other original takes on the Monk repertoire, Steve Lacy’s wonderful ‘Reflections’ on Prestige and the late 1980s Afro-Cuban jazz masterpiece, ‘Rumba para Monk’ by Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. Sumptuous versions of ‘Epistrophy’, ‘Nutty’ and ‘Off minor’ round off a memorable take on Monk’s innovative compositions.

A 1982 album, ‘Elaboration’, with virtually an identical roster of musicians, carries on with the original line-up of cello, tuba and guitar and the music veers between post-bop and the avant-garde. This writer was especially taken by the modal feel to ‘Lower Nile’. Guitarist Kelvyn Bell impresses and comes very much of the James ‘Blood’ Ulmer school of playing, while tuba player Bob Stewart oscillates between emphasising the bass line and playing the harmony. Cellist Abdul Wadud introduces an additional layered texture and this is music devoid of any clichés.

Which leaves the unfortunate second 1985 ‘Put sunshine in it’. This was a blatant attempt at commercial success with drum machines and synths, and one can only wonder at what the Columbia music executives thought they were doing when they encouraged Blythe to turn away from his natural inclinations and go for broke. The less said about the music the better and only a funky take on ‘One Mint Julep’ is worth mentioning. It was a ghastly mistake and a sole blemish on an otherwise exemplary Blythe catalogue for Columbia.

As a whole, then, well worth investigating and, hopefully, ‘Basic Blythe’, will finally see the light of day on CD in the UK and, with John Hicks on piano, it would be an ideal way to hear the music of one of the underrated saxophonists of the last four decades.

Tim Stenhouse